The common cold is a persistent nuisance. Americans catch an estimated 1 billion colds each year, and spend at least $4.2 billion annually on over-the-counter cough and cold medications. Even more is spent on alternative therapies.

What is the common cold?

The term “common cold” is somewhat of a misnomer. What we refer to as the common cold actually consists of more than 200 different viruses that cause similar symptoms, the most common being rhinovirus.

How to tell the difference between normal colds & the flu

Common colds and influenza can both cause coughs, stuffy noses, headaches and fevers. So how can you tell them apart? Here are some guidelines:

Normal cold symptoms…

  • Typically come on gradually

  • Rarely come with a high fever

  • Mainly consist of annoying symptoms like a sore throat or runny nose

  • Generally does not keep you from going about your day to day activities.

Typical flu symptoms…

  • Come on rather suddenly in most people

  • Are accompanied by a high fever; 102 degrees F or above

  • Your entire body aches

  • The illness knocks you for a loop and makes it difficult to function normally.

Why are colds more prevalent during the winter?
Colds are more common in the winter because people spend more time indoors in close quarters with infected people and surfaces. Dry air during the winter also dries out the protective mucas that lines nasal cavities, making people more susceptible.

How are colds spread?
It’s believed the most common means of transmission is through touching a contaminated surface and then touching your face. A small 2011 study found that people infected with rhinovirus, the most common cause of colds, contaminated 41% of surfaces in their homes – things like faucets, doorknobs, remote controls, microwave oven handles, and so on. An hour after touching those infected surfaces, the fingertips of 25% of people tested positive for a cold virus.

Cold viruses enter the body through the nose, eyes and mouth. So they are easily transferred when someone touches a contaminated surface, then proceeds to rub their eyes or touch their face.

At any given time it’s estimated that nearly 5% of the population has a common cold. The number of colds a person gets each year varies by age. Adults typically suffer 2-3 each year, whereas kids can get 8 or more. “Children between 1 and 5 years of age are most susceptible; each child averages 6 to 12 respiratory illnesses per year, most of which are common colds. Individuals 25 to 30 years old average about 6 respiratory illnesses a year, and older adults average two or three.” (Hanson, Venturelli & Fleckenstein, 2004, p. 420)

The reason for the declining rates is that the body progressively builds immunity as a person ages. So they become less susceptible to the viruses in circulation, though they still catch some colds, because these viruses are always mutating.